He was the final prophet of Islam, born in Mecca around the year 570. He was the man who, according to Islamic tradition, was given the Word of God by the angel, Gabriel, the one destined to restore Islam to the world, and the most important human figure in history to over 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide.
Yet, despite this, most Americans know very little about him.
There are many misconceptions which surround the significance of Muhammad. Some think that he created the religion of Islam. Others see him as a violent warlord. Many of these misconceptions arose from Western philosophical and theological frameworks, through which the story of Muhammad has filtered on its way to the Western public.
In reality, Muhammad was none of these things. What he was, in fact, was a humble messenger—a man of and unlimited compassion with a strong sense of justice.
At age 35, Muhammad was a respected figure in Mecca, made popular through his sense of fairness. According to Islamic tradition, he arbitrated a dispute between the tribes which set his reputation on high. These tribes argued over which should have the opportunity to place a holy stone in the corner of a newly built shrine. Rather than advocating for a single tribe, Muhammad placed his cloak upon the ground, with the stone in the middle, and had a representative from each tribe lift a corner of it, raising the stone to the top of the wall.
When Muhammad was around 40 years old, he began to experience visions and hear mysterious voices. Seeking solitude in a cave called al-Ḥirā, an angel appeared as a man before him, commanding him to “recite”. Muhammad replied that he could not recite, and the angel grabbed him and commanded him to recite:
"Proclaim! in the name of thy Lord and Cherisher, Who
Created man, out of a clot of congealed blood:
Proclaim! And thy Lord is Most Bountiful,–
Who taught by the pen–
Taught man that which he knew not."
With this, process of the divine revelation of the Quran began.
When the angel proclaimed that “Thou art the messenger of God and I am Gabriel,” Muhammad fled the cave, thinking that he had been accosted by an evil spirit. He ran down the mountainside, and as he did, the angel, Gabriel, appeared in its true form in the sky above him, filling the entire sky, which had become green—now the official color of Islam.
When he returned home from this terrifying experience, he told his wife, Khadījah, of what happened. Believing him immediately, she sent for her cousin, Waraqah, who was a Christian of great religious wisdom.
Muhammad related his story to Waraqah, who confirmed that Muhammad had been chosen as a prophet of God.
That was it. His fate was cemented, whether he liked it or not.
Muhammad receive his second revelation shortly thereafter, and then more and more, both through the words of Gabriel, and through direct revelations within his own heart and mind.
These revelations would be slowly recorded over the course of 23 years and bound up into Islam’s holiest text—the Quran.
Muhammad began to teach others what was revealed to him, beginning with his family, and then his friends, and after a few years, to his community.
From this small circle, Islam began to quickly grow, but most wealthy and influential Meccans rejected the message of Muhammad. This new religion, based on a single, monotheistic God and totally opposed to idolatry, threatened their ability to trade amongst the polytheistic peoples.
Over time, the danger to Muhammad and his followers increased, and the rulers of Mecca began to exert pressure on him to turn aside from his path. When this opposition reached a peak, coinciding with the deaths of several people close to Muhammad, including his wife, Muhammad’s resolve was sorely tested. All felt hopeless.
However, one night, Muhammad underwent another revelation—this one completely transformative. While sleeping, Muhammad was taken by Gabriel and ushered through the celestial spheres, all the way to the Divine Presence of God. There, he recieved a great store of divine knowledge and prayers and met earlier prophets such as Jesus and Moses. This experience is now known as the Nocturnal Ascent.
Bolstered by this revelation, Muhammad was invited to settle in the oasis of Yathrib—an eleven days journey—by those who had heard of his leadership and sense of justice. Yathrib, however, was torn by war between its two tribes.
There, Muhammad became beloved by the people, and established Islam as the social and religious order, and Yathrib became known as the City of the Prophet, or Medina. It was on the outskirts of Medina that the first Islamic mosque was built.
Muhammad meant for the society of Medina to be the model for all subsequent generations—it was a society based on social justice, unity, and peace.
His society, however, was under constant threat from the Meccans, and was marched upon by an army of 1,000 in 624. Muhammad mustered 313 Muslims to fight at a place called Badr, promising all those who were killed in the battle martyrdom and a place in paradise. Despite the great disadvantage, the army of Muhammad triumphed. This was the first of many victories that would eventually end in a truce with Mecca.
Muhammad began to send out letters to the world leaders of his time, inviting them to accept Islam, but noting that none should be under compulsion to do so.
By 631, Muhammad brought about the end of the “age of ignorance,” as Muslims called the pre-Islamic age in Arabia. Uniting the Arabs for the first time in history beneath the structure of Islam, Muhammad succeeded in creating a society that was ruled not by tribal bonds, but by the bond between man and God.
In June of 632, Muhammad fell suddenly ill, dying three days later. He was buried in his home, and his tomb is now the holiest place in Islam after the Kaʿbah. The legacy of Islam—his life’s goal—was achieved, and his words and deeds are now read by billions.
It was in the 13th century that the traditional Western image of Muhammad emerged—an imposter, a heretic, and a warmonger. Medieval Christian scholars tended to depict Muhammad in the worst ways possible, even going so far as to paint the man as the antichrist or, at the least, a false prophet. It would not be until the 18th century that the life of Muhammad would be looked on with any positivity in the Western world.
The Muslim world, itself, is not immune from such misinterpretations, as can be seen in Islamic terrorist groups which capitalize on this negative image of Muhammad to wage what is, at its heart, a political rather than holy war—a war Muhammad would have never condoned.
Whatever you might think of Muhammad, he was a good, just man who was successful in creating an nearly unprecedented mark on world history, establishing a religious empire and the means of its propagation and transmission, utterly changing the world.